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Thursday, November 21, 2013

Review: 12 Years A Slave

12 Years A Slave (2013): Written by John Ridley, directed by Steve McQueen.  Starring: Chiwetel Ejiofor, Michael Fassbender, Benedict Cumberbatch, Paul Dano, Paul Giamatti, Lupita Nyong’o, Sarah Paulsen, Brad Pitt, and Alfre Woodard.  Running Time: 134 minutes.  Based on Twelve Years A Slave, by Solomon Northrup. 

Rating: 3.5/4 

            In terms of size, scope, and duration, America’s original sin of slavery is second only to our other original sin, the centuries of wars and (to put it politely) diplomatic backstabbing against the Indian tribes that resulted in the destruction of most of North America’s pre-Columbian population.  And, like the Indian wars, slavery also has a long history of being romanticized and/or whitewashed (pun intended) when it’s depicted in movies.  When it isn’t being ignored entirely, that is.  While I, as a general rule, am against romanticizing or “cleaning up” historical figures/societies/events/etc. in any form, regardless of the when, the where, the who, and the how terrible, this treatment in regards to slavery is a particularly egregious bee in my personal bonnet.  I tend to get far more worked up over depictions of slavery in film than those of other major human crimes, mostly because such depictions can and have helped perpetuate the mythic fog surrounding the Old South in the minds of far too many people- said mythos includes such misguided beliefs as “the Civil War wasn’t really about slavery,” “most slaveholders were actually decent, Christian guys,” and “all in all, slavery wasn’t really that bad an experience for the majority of salves.”  To say that I hold nothing but utter contempt for such thoughts is a gross understatement. 

            This is why I am so relieved to see 12 Years A Slave join the ranks of other great films like last year’s Django Unchained and older films like Amistad, movies that actively work to break out of the chaffing handcuffs of traditionally clean depictions of slavery, ala Gone With The Wind, as well as movies like Lincoln, which dissuade the viewer from falling into the trap of separating the secessionist movement from the existence of slavery.  The fact that it’s also a true story, often a double-edged sword in cinema, gives its no-holds-barred presentation of slave life a bit more weight than fictional treatises like Django (although its images of slavery also bore little to no embellishment). 

            I am willing to bet most people were not previously aware of the book this movie is based on, an 1853 memoir of the same name by our main character, Solomon Northrup, played by Chiwetel Ejiofor.  Living about as comfortably as a free black man could in the pre-Civil War North, Northrup is one day conned by two men claiming to want to hire him to play violin for them.  He is drugged, put in chains, beaten when he asks to see be set free again, and is taken down south to be sold into slavery.  His first owner is a man named William Ford, played by the recently omnipresent Benedict Cumberbatch.  Northrup recalled this owner in his memoir as a kind, gentle, and Christian man, possibly intending to play to the common belief (both then and now) that there was an important difference between “good” and “bad” plantation owners, but as the movie very distinctly reminds us, even a “good” plantation owner like Ford would not have been personally inclined, nor practically able, to hear the pleas of someone in the position of Solomon, no matter how legal their freedom may have been. 

            After Solomon snaps and whips one of Ford’s more vicious overseers (a short but effective cameo by Paul Dano from There Will Be Blood), Ford is forced to sell him to yet another owner, this time the far less gentle (and, pretensions to the contrary, far less Christian) Edwin Epps, played by Michael Fassbender at his very Fassbenderiest.  This is where the movie takes its darkest turns, forcing both Solomon and the audience to stare directly into the face of just a few of slavery’s worst horrors, and reminding us that for every Ford the Old South had, there were just as many Epps, men and women taking part in a brutal institution that forced them, in turn, to be brutal to themselves just as much as to others in order to be able to accept it. 

            Ejiofor and Fassbender are both Oscar-worthy in their respective roles, each carrying the movie above its occasional flaws.  I would have preferred it if the film had taken a slower track in the beginning, giving us more time to see Solomon with his family and to get a stronger feel for the life that is snatched away from him.  There are also a few brief jumps back and forth in the narrative that seem a bit random.  Those are minor nitpicks though- once the film settles in, it’s paced quite well, and the glue that holds everything together is the unyielding focus on Solomon.  He gets a few overly dramatic moments, but for the most, both his performance and the film’s treatment of him are far more subtle and underplayed than you might expect from a film like this.  There are a great many scenes shot in near-darkness, contrasted sharply with the brutally strong sun under which Solomon and his fellows had to spend day after day toiling away for the gain of others. 

              Be warned- those with queasy stomachs will be in for a rough two hours.  This movie will put a great number of viewers through the proverbial emotional wringer.  If there’s a silver lining to the litany of beatings, whippings, and lynchings we must endure, it’s that none of it is played up to extremes for the sake of yanking a horrified reaction out of you.  It’s all treated- as indeed it was- as a normal part of daily life for all involved.  And in its own way, simply showing how normal such things were makes them seem far more terrible than if McQueen had tried to shove everything in our faces while screaming, “Look!  How horrible!”  Such theatrics are, thankfully, hardly present, because they simply aren’t needed. 

            12 Years A Slave may fall short of being the “best” movie of 2013, but its powerful acting and the fact that it has the guts to not blatantly romanticize a story that seems too good to NOT get the standard Hollywoodization treatment will definitely earn it a spot on most people’s Top 10 lists come January.  Highly recommended. 

-Noah Franc   

Thursday, November 7, 2013

Review- Thor: The Dark World

Thor: The Dark World (2013): Written by Christopher Yost, Christopher Markus, and Stephen McFeely.  Directed by Alan Taylor.  Starring: Chris Hemsworth, Natalie Portman, Tom Hiddleston, Anthony Hopkins, Stellan Skarsgard, Idris Elba, and The Doctor.  Running Time: 112 minutes.  Based on the Thor comic series from Marvel. 

Rating: 3.5/4 

            If there’s anyone worried that Marvel has already played the best hand they had with last year’s blockbuster hit The Avengers (and I was certainly one of them), let this film be a reassurance for you, because if it’s anything to go by, they’re just getting warmed up.  Thor: The Dark World is easily one of the best non-Avengers films of the Marvel franchise thus far, on par with Ironman I and Captain America, and matches Pacific Rim beat-for-beat as one of the best action films of 2013.  I went in expecting creative and visually stunning fights and elaborate set pieces, costumes, and settings, and got all of it in spades, but the cherry on top was the refreshingly high level of self-aware humor written into the script, which makes the whole spectacle its own special kind of fun. 

            The beginning of the film offers a long-awaited explanation as to why Thor was not available for the Mandarin conspiracy in Ironman 3- the destruction of Asgard’s portal and the havoc wreaked by Loki’s invasion of Earth led to war throughout the Nine Realms, so he and his merry mates have been busy restoring order to the various worlds under Asgard’s control (it’s left unsaid whether or not these worlds are directly ruled by the Asgardians).  They finish with a final battle and celebrate heartily, but Thor is, of course, still distracted by thoughts of his favorite feathered Animagus.  He finally returns to Earth for her when she is briefly transported to a nether world in…….somewhere…..and comes into contact with a material called the Aether, a relic from the beginning of time capable of returning utter darkness to the universe (why did Star Trek get a “Darkness” related title again?  Was there any reason at all for that?).  The Aether imbeds itself in her, which both endangers her life and awakens the Dark Elf Malekith, played by our beloved Ninth, who had previously attempted to use the Aether to destroy all existence, only to be stopped by Thor’s grandfather.  Now, he rebuilds his forces and prepares to strike directly at Asgard in order to regain the Aether and make a fresh attempt at destroying the Nine Realms.    

            I’ll stop the plot synopsis there, because otherwise I’d have to jump into spoiler territory.  Not that there’s much to be spoiled anyway- Malekith is as one-note a villain as any we’ve seen in other Marvel films, which does deprive Eccleston of the chance to really liven up the screen.  However, there are more than a few well-played twists in it (nothing terribly complicated, but nothing mind-bogglingly stupid), so I’d personally recommend seeing it cold.  As always, the most interesting character on screen is Hiddleston’s Loki, primarily because he’s still having far more fun with his role than should be legally permitted.  Seriously, every time he comes on screen, his sheer joy at being able to just run around and do Loki-esque things is physically palpable.  Not that the rest of the cast is bad- Hopkins and Hemsworth are as wonderfully pompous and overblown as ever, and each of the side characters get their moments (Thor’s Asgardian friends are finally given smidgeons of personality).  Everyone on set is clearly enjoying themselves, but from the first minute onward, there’s no doubt as to who’s show it really is.  The lone exception is Idris Elba as Heimdall, one of my favorite side-characters in this universe, who gets a lot more screentime than he did in Thor, along with a brief but fantastic scene where he single-handedly takes down an entire enemy spacecraft.  Hiddleston has the most raw charisma in the film, but damn, does Elba have presence

            I compared this movie to Pacific Rim because they are very much cut from the same cloth- both are massively overblown action extravaganzas that, while taking place in interesting universes, never stray far from basic stories and characters, and never tell us more than they need to.  These films don’t care to be analyzed, they’re just having fun.  And Dark World is nothing if not several barrels full of fun.  It is far from perfect- there are plenty of minor holes in the story, and lots of miraculous, Deus ex Machina plot devices that come along at just the right times.  What saves the film from them, though, is its unabashed self-awareness.  Each cliché is accompanied by a hilariously casual gung-ho attitude- everyone knows the game, and they’re just happy they were invited to the party.  When the inevitable Thor-wants-to-do-something-his-father-disapproves-of-and-thus-must-commit-treason bit comes along, his friends jump into the rule-breaking pool with him with almost indecent gusto; “For Asgard!” casually proclaims one of Thor’s inexplicably British companions, as he effortlessly vaults himself through the air to attack a flying skiff. 
            Mention must be made of the movie’s set pieces, especially on Asgard itself.  We didn’t get to see a whole lot of the place in the first Thor movie, so it was nice to get plenty of shots of the characters flying through the city, which takes plenty of motifs from Gondor in LOTR, but in just the right amounts.  As a longtime fan of both fantasy and sci-fi, I got a kick out of seeing its fusion of fantasy-style costumes, architecture, and weaponry with sci-fi space technology- even the spaceships Malekith busts out look like detached towers from the land of Mordor.  I’m also a sucker for anything involving space in general (which is partially why I’m still head-over-heels for Gravity), and in one of my favorite sequences of the year, we get to see what Thor and Natalie Portman see as they travel to Asgard via the Bifröst Bridge.   

            I won’t spoil their contents, but since the total number of hidden credit scenes is different for each Marvel movie, I will merely confirm that there are two scenes after the movie, not just one- the first is halfway through the credits, and the other is at the very, very end, so yes, definitely stay all the way through.  Honestly though, you should stay through the credits even if there was no second scene, because even without them, this is one of the best action movies of the year, and all the many grunts who toiled away on the effects teams deserve at least a moment of collective recognition.  Thor: The Dark World is big, flashy, and silly as ever, and God bless it for that.  If we never let the silly in once in a while, what a drab, drab world this would be. 

-Noah Franc 

Saturday, November 2, 2013

Review: Finsterworld

Finsterworld (2013): Written by Frauke Finsterwalder and Christian Kracht, directed by Frauke Finsterwalder.  Starring: Ronald Zehrfeld, Sandra Hüller, Michael Maertens, Margit Carstensen, Corinna Harfouch, Bernhard Schütz, Johannes Krisch, Christoph Bach, Carla Juri, Leonard Scheicher, Max Pellny, Jakub Gierszał, Markus Hering, and Dieter MeierMusic by: Michaela Melian.  Running Time: 91 minutes.  Based on the novel by the same writers. 

Rating: 3/4 

            If Finsterworld had a subtitle, I imagine it would be something along the lines of; Finsterworld: Are You Creeped Out Yet?  No?  Damn.  Well, How About Now?  I’ve always asserted that movies that resort to overt graphic representation of violence or sex to make their viewers feel scared, or upset, or uncomfortable are spinning their wheels in cinematic bush league.  Real terror comes from suggestion- what you anticipate is about to happen when a murderer lifts their ax, or what you imagine is going on when one character pushes another behind a foggy pane of glass.  And even if you want to show something on-screen, overt sadistry won’t get you nearly as far as showing something so out-of-left-field bizarre, so impossible to anticipate, that you immediately want to glance away out of sheer squeamishness, even if there’s no blood.  Ladies and gentlemen, this is Finsterworld

            By my count, the total number of “official” characters in Finsterworld numbers an even baker’s dozen, whose lives and actions during a single day are all interconnected via a vast web of tangents and happenstance occurrences.  A group of students are on a trip to memorials of concentration camps within Germany.  The parents of one of the children, rich and blissfully pessimistic about humanity, are driving a rented car to...somewhere not in Germany (which they hate, in case you miss that).  This pessimism extends to the man’s mother, unhappily confined to a retirement home, her only confidant the masseur who comes a few times a week to clean her feet.  He, in turn, was stopped that morning by a policeman, who moonlights as a Fury to vent his frustrations over his aspiring artist of a girlfriend.  Unfortunately, his pelty secret has been discovered by a man living in the forest who saw him change into his silky white counterpart.      

            The various episodes that follow are not a cohesive narrative by any stretch of the imagination, more like vignettes that, in different ways, try to delve into various aspects of the German psyche and self-image, especially in regards to the admittedly heavy legacy of Nazism and the Holocaust.  I say try, because while I certainly appreciate the film’s ambition, and even admire certain aspects of it, I’m not convinced it accomplishes what it sets out to do. 

            I really can’t put my finger on why I feel this way- I just know that, even a few days after seeing the movie, I can’t seem to form an overall impression of it in my mind.  The acting’s fine, as is the writing (although it’s a bit preachy in spots), and the soundtrack is one of the best I’ve heard this year, but other than that, the only thing about Finsterworld that’s really stuck is how damn creepy it gets at times, occasionally in surprisingly philosophical ways. 

            For example (INCOMING SPOILERS), there’s one scene where a girl is forcefully shoved into one of the ovens at the concentration camp they are visiting (we’re never told which one).  If just knowing that someone’s locked in a Nazi oven isn’t enough for you, the level of unsettling goes up a more abstract notch when she’s pulled out, and you realize that there’s probably more than a few bits of decades-old human ash mixed into her hair and clothes.  Creepy as hell, but darned if I know what I should take away from it.  The stand-out, however, is the pedicurist who visits the old retired woman.  This guy deserves a special award for creating a veritable singularity of eeriness, where any other thought you might have in your head is immediately driven out by some variation of, “Wait, what’s he….oh.  Oh!  OH GOD NO!  PLEASE NO!” 

            I don’t know who I could recommend Finsterworld to.  Perhaps anyone who’s really desperate for an above-average German flick, and also have a taste for more abstract, arthousey style films.  Even if you’re as interested as I am in the continuing psychological exploration of post-WWII Germany, I don’t know if there’s anything new you could take away from this.  But it is a unique and interesting effort, even if it never really manages to go anywhere by the end.  Tentatively recommended. 

-Noah Franc